Taming Our Stuff

By Sunday, January 27, 2013 7 0

The godawful, oversized necklace gifted to me by a well-meaning friend. Never-used pencils, a once-worn shirt, a four-foot long roll of striped gift-wrap paper (striped? gaa!). Two framed pictures that hadn’t seen a wall in years. Three grocery bags of books I wouldn’t read again (or hadn’t read in the first place). All that and more I deposited into the spring-loaded containers at the Goodwill drive-through last week. Some of it I had probably bought at that same Goodwill last year.

This was an episode of taming my stuff, an episode that repeats itself several times a year. Whenever I shed stuff, I feel lighter. When it builds up, I feel heavy and encumbered. We can’t take any of our stuff with us, in the end. And, the rooms and boxes full of stuff we leave behind when we die is a burden for our loved ones to deal with, as well as a burden to us in the here and now.

 In general, the more stuff we have beyond the things we use steadily, the more time we spend attending to it or tripping over it. And, the more that stuff commands our attention, the less attention we have for each other, and nature, and God (or whatever you love or worship or consider greater than yourself).

Children, who have more toys and other possesstions now than ever before in history, can be great partners in taming their own stuff.  My blogging pal Dan Patterson at Patterson’s Picks wrote recently about Book-Taming, in which his son and daughter helped him address “a breakdown of civil society” on their bookshelves. The kids stepped right up and happily sorted which books they loved and would keep for rereading, and which they’d give away so other children could read them. I love Dan’s example of how we can team with our loved ones to tame and control our possessions, rather than letting the possessions control us by cramping our living space. Also, gleaning, e.g. sharing our surplus, has been a vein of gold since God was born.

Our electronic culture means we now have a world of e-stuff to tame, above and beyond our physical stuff. I franky find it exhausting. See decluttering our email inboxes for tips on taming e-stuff.

Excess stuff has impacts far beyond our personal lives. Stuff takes enormous amounts of the earth’s resources to produce. Then there’s the economy: luxury stuff creates the type of jobs that are bound to disappear when recession hits. Think about it. Does the grocery industry, which feeds people, lay off  millions of people in hard times? No, but the general retail industry does. A great many retail items are luxury items.

The catch, the hook, is that new stuff can be very fun. It’s enlivening. It lifts our spirits, sometimes even makes the world feel new to us again. That happened for me when I got new living room furniture in fall of 2006, just in time for a visit from dear friends from Virginia. We still use all that furniture daily, so that was an example of buying the right stuff. 

But it’s easy to buy the wrong stuff. We can’t always tell at the time of purchase whether that item is going to work out well, or not. Purchases are often a gamble. Returning items is a chore that goes onto a list that is already too long, and saving and finding the receipts is another chore. Going on a purchasing diet is a great preventative measure to dealing with stuff. I did that once with clothes; I decided to go six months without buying any. I caved one month early on account of leaving my suitcase at home when we went away for a weekend (I bought jeans and a shirt at a second-time-around store). Still, five months of no clothes-shopping felt great. 

Have you ever noticed how NEEDY stuff is? Leather items dry and eventually crack if they aren’t moistened with oil. Clothes and bedding need washing, drying and storage places — actually, everything under the sun needs storage places. Then our overloaded brains have to remember which items live in which places. Electronic items need new batteries, or they malfunction, and once they’re functioning again they’re outdated and “need” to be replaced. Everything in creation gathers dust, and if it’s an item anywhere near my  kitchen stove, it also gathers oil somehow through the air. Aarrgh. 

Stuff can be so needy that some people treat their possessions as if they are people, and people as if they are possessions. The physical objects – a car or boat or closetful of shoes, for example – get loving attention and nurturance, and people, even family and friends, get the brisk, matter-of-fact treatment.

I say it should be the other way around: people should get our loving attention and nurturance, and our possessions the brisk treatment.

Of course, we need stuff in order to live. The right stuff, the best stuff, helps us live out our best values. Thor’s and my most valuable possession is The Bell. It lives on our mantle. Ringing it keeps me and Thor from fighting, because we have to hold still and be quiet for as long as the sound stays in the air. This quieting device prevents fights like magic, which protects our relationship. In terms of stuff, The Bell is the single biggest contributor to our joyful, diamond-cut marriage. The trick is for us to ring it early on when tension rises, to use it as intended. 

But I guess that’s the challenge with all of our possessions — to use them as our hearts and common sense really intend to use them.

Over to you: Which of your possessions express your best values? What has been your own best trick for taming your stuff? Comments here.

7 Comments
  • Grnpwrguy
    January 27, 2013

    Ahh the bell, one of the best investments of my life purchased at a Thich Nhat Hahn retreat in Estes Park, CO. Interesting that something so simple could end up creating so much value!

  • Erin
    January 27, 2013

    Having clothing swap parties has been a huge joy for me. It both helps me clear out my clutter, socialize with friends or meet new people, and I get that “zing” of having new clothes without spending any money. We then donate the rest.

    One of my favorite purchases is a farmhouse table I bought in Athens, GA. It was at an antique shop, but wasn’t even for sale, just the items on top. It’s worn, cracked paint and was super inexpensive. Cooking, gathering around the table with loved ones, eating and drinking. The best!

    • Alison
      January 28, 2013

      Ditto on clothing swap parties, Erin! They’re sometimes called Naked Lady parties. About your table: I totally get its excellence in your life. Tables are community-builders (just like The Bell is a marriage-builder, for me, at least).

  • Rob Hall
    January 28, 2013

    Except houseplants. You can never have too many of those.

    • Alison
      January 28, 2013

      Rob, I love houseplants too. But I confess I recently culled two of mine. They’d gotten oversized for their spaces. I can see you are a more tenderhearted biophile than I am. Next time I want to get rid of a houseplant I clearly need to call you first and arrange a cross-town adoption. Looking forward to dinner at your new place next month.

  • Ami
    January 29, 2013

    For me, it’s good to assess ease of replacement. Storage, even in terms of space used/needed inside the home, bears cost. Usually, it costs more to store it than replace it. So, if replacing it would be fairly cheap and I wouldn’t use it for sure within the next year, then goodbye to it.

    Also, saving the size I may fit into later — styles change. If you’re willing to buy preowned clothes, it doesn’t cost so much. Better to donate now and gain the space/peace, then purchase inexpensively the things I like when it’s time.

    • Alison
      January 30, 2013

      Ami, I like your insight about space used. I’ve often reflected that having surplus earrings or CD’s is a very different animal from having surplus bicycles or furniture.

      Clothing styles? I admit I’m pretty hopeless at following these. The only things I’m ever willing to wear are things that look good on me. I do like your emphasis on gaining space/peace.

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